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It’s March. Winter isn’t quite over but spring promises to come soon. What better time to clean out your closet and ready your wardrobe for the new season?

This ritual of sorting through clothes to keep and let go of gets easier with practice. But deciding what to do with your discards is another story. Each time, you'll try to remember—wasn’t there a big metal bin in a parking lot near the grocery store? Perfect, you'll drop them off and they’ll be delivered to the hands of someone who needs them. Great, done. 

Except that’s not what happens.

[The ever-present donation bins.]

The assumption is that the contents of these bins go to people in need, but in reality, they're often sold, with the companies behind the bins claiming to send a portion of the proceeds to charity. There's little transparency and accountability, though, on where the goods are sold, how much funds are raised, and where unsold goods end up.

That's the challenge with thrift stores too—where does the donated clothing really go? Of the donations made to Goodwill in the US, for example, only 10% actually get put on the rack and sold. Instead, 62.5 million pounds of clothing are sent to landfills per day in the US, with even more shipped overseas to places like Kantamanto in Accra, Ghana.

In Kantamanto, resellers make bids on giant shipments of the Global North’s discarded clothing, sight unseen. Their livelihoods depend on reselling this clothing, but arriving at a pace of 15 million garments a week in Kantamanto alone, there's simply too much of it.

[Image credit: Nana Kwadwo Agyei Addo, Accra Studios]

The work is unsafe and unprofitable. Most resellers are trapped in a cycle of debt, unable to sell what they’ve paid for. The clothing just keeps coming.

“Despite the best efforts of Kantamanto’s entrepreneurs, 40 percent of the clothing leaves the market as waste. Accra lacks the landfill space for this clothing waste, so much of it is burned in the open air, swept into the gutter from where it eventually makes its way to the sea, or dumped in informal settlements where Accra’s most vulnerable citizens live.”

– Liz Ricketts, The Or Foundation  

It’s a heartbreaking reality but if anything, learning about this has guided me to make more deliberate decisions. A simple closet clean-out can be done with care.

So, let’s walk through this perpetual work-in-progress guide to cleaning out your closet. 

Ready to start? The first step is to divide your clothes into different categories:

Wearable, in great condition.

Consider selling on consignment or donating to a local homeless shelter or church group gathering clothing for emergency relief, instead of resorting to a major thrift store. (Not all thrift stores are bad—just do your research.) Or, host a clothing swap with friends.

[One of my go-to consignment stores, Trilogy.]

Wearable, but needs fixing.

Would you wear those pants if they were hemmed? Is that shirt fine, just missing a button? Take more complicated fixes to your tailor, and simple ones to your dry cleaner. You can also drop by a Repair Cafe or if you are local to the Hudson Valley, stop by our Mending Bar and get some DIY assistance. 

Unwearable, bad condition.

Depending on the item, there are lots of ways to get another round of service from unwearable clothes. Old towels and cotton t-shirts can become rags. Did you know that natural fibers are compostable? If you have a compost pile at home, as long as clothing takes up no more than 25% of your pile, you can shred natural fibers and work them in.

When you have exhausted these options and still have a pile of mystery fibers and unwearables, I highly recommend textile recycling.

[Textile recycling in Minneapolis, Minnesota.]

Your local DPW most likely has a program in place, though it's worth some investigating to make sure that the end result is what you are looking for. (I found out that my local DPW has a relationship with HELPSY, a certified B Corp that is dedicated to keeping textiles out of landfills, however, they still sell to secondhand markets around the world.) Another option is TerraCycle.

Learning about textile waste can be so depressing. The more you learn, the more daunting it all can seem.

The important thing to remember is that with each day we have an opportunity to make choices. Whether you commit to a new shopping rule or two, or commit to mending what you have, these choices add up.

Harmony is always possible.

— Anne-Marie


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